They Might Be Giants.
Such a prophetic name for a band that’s been conquering new territory on a three-decade evolutionary quest.
No two shows are ever alike for the indie rock titans from Brooklyn, N.Y., winners of two Grammy Awards — in 2002 for “Boss of Me,” the theme song for TV’s “Malcolm in the Middle,” and in 2009 for the children’s album “Here Come the 123s.”
The prolific band, formed by high school friends John Flansburgh and John Linnell in 1982, has recorded 15 studio albums and sold more than 4 million records since the self-titled debut in 1986. Among its hits are a peppy cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Birdhouse in your Soul.”
Now the Johns and their bandmates are forging another new path with their eclectic new collection, “Join Us,” channeling the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” phase in the first half, before spinning off in diverse directions and sounds for the second half.
Eastern Iowans can join them at the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City on Oct. 30.
“We’ve been on the road the last month. We are arriving road-weary and road tested,” Flansburgh, 51, says by phone from his studio in Midtown Manhattan, where they continue to work between gigs. “We’ll be exceptionally well rehearsed. We have an ‘earn-as-you-learn’ policy. A lot of things we get together as we’re going. The show is always evolving,” Flansburgh says.
“It’s important to us to keep moving in the most essential way. We’re always changing our repertoire. We have an active repertoire of about 90 songs,” he says, “which is useful, because we can go back to a city a year later, and without much real effort, play a completely different show — and we do, because we’ll cross-reference the previous show. That really adds to the entertainment value for the recidivists, but it also keeps it musically and spiritually alive for us because we’re not doing the same thing over and over again.
“We’ve been working as a band for almost 30 years,” says the singer/songwriter and guitarist who reunited with Linnell after their career paths merged in New York. Linnell had been playing with New Wave band The Mundanes in Rhode Island and Flansburgh had roamed from Ohio and Atlanta before heading north.
“We both landed in New York City at the same time,” Flansburgh says. “He was coming to hit it big, I was coming to art school, and because we knew people in the city, we ended up moving into the same building (in Brooklyn) and that’s where the band started.”
The seeds actually were planted in a low-tech way in the late ’70s, during their high school days in the Boston area.
“I owned a tape recorder and John would come over and we’d just kind of experiment with making sounds with a tape recorder in a psychedelic way,” Flansburgh says. “We were friends kind of kicking around, doing different things and moving around.”
They’re still kicking around, doing different things and moving around the country, even though they’re still based in Brooklyn.
Their first fans were college students, and so are their current fans.
“It’s a bit Dorian Gray-ish that we have such a young crowd,” Flansburgh says. “It speaks to a couple of things: Our music has this absurdist element that appeals to young people, and as people get older, they often become more of a drag, so our music no longer fits into the lifestyle of the older, more serious crowd. Also, because we play in clubs, we’re not that popular. Clubs keep ticket (prices) lower, which keeps a younger audience.”
Those who come to the Englert concert are in for an experience he calls “very celebratory.”
“There’s a real, genuine dismantling of the fourth wall,” he says. “For the audience, it feels very experiential, very linear. We’re aware of what’s happening in the arc of the show. If things go sideways, that’s often the beginning of a very singular show.
“Shows that have strange things happen in them often are the funnest. It’s a chance to make something new — we use lots of improvisation strategies in the show. It’s not an experiment, but it uses experimental techniques to keep it spontaneous.”
— Diana Nollen
- WHAT: They Might Be Giants
- WHEN: 7 p.m. Oct. 30
- WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
- TICKETS: General admission: $22 in advance, $25 day of show
- DETAILS: (319) 688-2653, Englert.org, Theymightbegiants.com